On the Farm – Chanel Irvine

I’m from South Africa originally, but spent seventeen years living in Australia from the age of six. I am now based in the UK, between London and Kent (COVID-19 regulations permitting).

I will always introduce myself as a photographer; it is my passion and the best way I’ve found to express my views on the world. Unfortunately, I cannot presently afford to work as a photographer full-time so I work three days a week as a copywriter and creative at a social impact PR agency in London, and I spend the rest of my time on my own documentary projects as well as commissioned jobs.

What’s your story?

I recently finished a Master’s degree specialising in documentary photography, after completing a Bachelor’s degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics where I focused on questions of social and global justice.

I can’t remember when I first felt the urge to document things with a camera, but I know I was very young and the result filled me with an intense fascination and joy – I learnt that I could make a single moment last in a tangible format. My first photographic subjects were my primary school friends; I attempted to capture the naïve silliness of our morning tea and lunch breaks.

When I began travelling more broadly after school, my photographic interest shifted to architecture and landscape, and finally moved to the interaction between people and place. It wasn’t until I completed my Master’s that I realised my real visual identity is an aspiring documentary photographer.

At the moment I am working on my own personal, long-term projects that document preservation and change. My practice seeks to portray the power of human initiative, connection and contribution. I am inspired by the importance of solution-based journalism and hope to embrace the type of visual communication that empowers, because I feel that there is still too much emphasis on “negative news” or stories that hope to appeal to people’s sympathy, instead of constructive, positive stories that motivate people to take action.

My stories often focus on livelihoods, environments and communities that are susceptible to change based on emerging trends, development demands and the technological progressions that inevitably accompany today’s increasingly modern society. Aware of the multitude of sustainability issues they face, I am particularly interested in the people and organisations who are working to make a positive environmental and social impact in their communities.

For my more personal work, I am constantly inspired by moments that I find timeless – my observations tend to focus on scenes that are reminiscent of older, simpler times, persisting and seemingly unaffected by the advancements that continuously transform the world we live in.

I like to think that my photographs reassert the importance of the “ordinary” as a photographic subject and highlight the beauty that can constantly be rediscovered in the everyday. This focus enables me to find fulfilment in photographing anything, anywhere, as my eyes have been trained to recognise the value in all things that are otherwise easily overlooked – and I always find artistic inspiration there.

Let’s talk about your series ‘On the Farm’. What’s it about? What was your motivation behind making the work?

For my project ‘On the Farm,’ I spent time with small farming families and communities in the northern parts of Iceland whose practices make a strong case against the intensive and unsustainable present-day industrial model.

All around the world the environment has been suffering. We recently saw the Amazon rainforest and Australia go up in flames, following countless other natural catastrophes that increasingly confirm our societies’ greatest fear and reinforce our biggest challenge: things need to change.

One of the most common suggestions is to lower the impacts of the farming industry – more specifically, beef, sheep and dairy farming, or livestock farming, which contributes to land degradation, a large percentage of global water usage and increasing pressure for deforestation. Of course, there are counterarguments that claim that farming for a “vegan world” would be almost equally as damaging. Like it has always done, the debate continues…

The stories of the Icelandic community I photographed, like many others from around the world, reassert the importance of farming for regional communities who depend on it to preserve their heritage, identity and livelihood. The people in these photographs shared with me their daily lives on the farm, their stories, their passion, and a hope that there will always be a need for the work that they do.

Through the passing generations they have been forced to adapt to the changing demands for their products and the volatile economic and environmental climate they’re working in, ensuring their work is increasingly sustainable.

Though change for our planet is both inevitable and necessary, and though we may not yet know what that change is going to look like, I feel obliged to create a collective portrait of farmers today. The story of the human race can be defined and categorised by its different ages, and today it is important to recognise those that have dedicated their lives to providing food for our current age, as we are likely to soon transition into the next.

While working on the project, were there any moments that stood out to you ?

There are so many – it was honestly such a special trip for me. The people I stayed with were all so warm and inviting, and eager to share their lives on the farm with me.

I will never forget first meeting Frida, a third-generation sheep farmer; she gave me a massive hug and I told her that her farm was absolutely breathtaking. She replied, “Don’t leave then, stay with me and you can help on the farm!” The next morning, I woke up to the most incredible sunrise – the whole sky was pink and the light on the frosted grass was exquisite. We had coffee together before setting off in her car, starting the day by looking for a runaway ram.

You’ve said that this was a special trip for you, and I can see that in your words, how you speak about the work; did this trip changed you in any way?

This trip certainly did make me look at our modern, urban lifestyle very differently and reassess what is really “necessary” in order to be happy, to be fulfilled and enjoy one’s work.

The families I stayed with spent the majority of their time with each other and, living as far away from the cities as they do, they are able to really focus on the simple joys in life; the people we spend it with.

I am very lucky that my parents live in the countryside in Kent which means I do spend a lot of my time on walks and outside in the fresh air. I do love the energy of the city but don’t think I’d be able to live there permanently for more than a few years.

I am my happiest when I am surrounded by nature, and this trip has really motivated me to spend more time on farms, documenting the people who are able to enjoy that quality of life.

Recommend us something.

I haven’t had much time to watch / read / listen to much in the last little while, but some recommendations I would share from this year would be:

Films/Shows: Dark Waters, The Peanut Butter Falcon, Normal People, Mrs America

Books: Girl, Woman, Other; Where the Crawdads Sing; A Little Life.

Albums: KIWANUKA

Finally, tell us about a piece of art that has influenced you.

My favourite photography book – one that I keep finding myself coming back to – is Sheron Rupp’s ‘Taken From Memory.

This body of work is the most inspiring photography I’ve come across so far; the portraits are striking and in other scenes it’s like she’s merely a fly on the wall. Her subjects are so candidly and freely engaged in whatever it is they’re doing – as if she isn’t there at all – but in reality she is oh-so-close to them. The proximity and trust involved in these images is something I strive for; if one day I can take a photograph that emanates even the slightest bit of her work, I will feel very successful indeed.

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